Recently I traveled to Europe and experienced some of the best, freshest food, and it got me to wondering: where in the world is the best place for healthy food? I promised a food journey of the wonderful things my family ate while we were away. We’ll look at what we ate, and see where the healthiest eaters live in the world.

Let’s get started. Oxfam is a group of more than 18 charities, working in 90 countries, focusing on bringing people out of poverty, and helping them thrive. Oxfam designed a group to study the best and worst places to eat around the world. It is important to understand the basis of the study to understand its outcomes. The group designed the study to explore four key points:

  1. Do people have enough to eat? – Measured by levels of undernourishment and underweight children
  2. Can people afford to eat? – Measured by food price levels compared to other goods and services and food price volatility
  3. Is food of good quality? – Measured by diversity of diet and access to clean and safe water, and
  4. What is the extent of unhealthy outcomes of people’s diet? – Measured by diabetes and obesity.

The report and its findings are lengthy. Here are the results, of the 125 countries studied.  

  1. Netherlands
2. France, Switzerland
3. Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden
8. Australia, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal
121. Yemen
122. Madagascar
123. Ethiopia, Angola
125. Chad

Here’s a comprehensive list.

How did the United States fare in the rankings? We tied Japan for 21st, despite that we have the plenty of cheap food available, while Canada took the 25th place of 125. But there’s more. Our rank becomes 105 of 125 countries in terms of how diet influences health. If we just look at the numbers that doesn’t sound too bad. But, what do these numbers mean? This metric looks at how diet affects diabetes and obesity rates, whether we have access to safe water, a diversified diet, and good quality food. We ranked better than countries where food is one of the biggest expenses. High food prices mean that people do not have enough food available, at a high enough quality, to sustain healthy diets. Diets in these countries are dominated by nutrient-poor cereals, roots, and root vegetables. Shouldn’t the US have placed better since we have water, and a variety of food at reasonable prices? The answer may be in the quality of the food we consume.

Back to the food itself, the yummy, delicious food we put in our mouths on our recent trip to Europe. Do our real-life findings compare with the report? I promised a food adventure, but you probably weren’t expecting it quite like this.  

Italy-IRL-In Real Life Findings

Italy is home of the espresso or double espresso as we came to experience it. It places 116 of 125 in the report. It doesn’t have any malnourishment, or undernourished children, and has safe water sources. Food prices are high, and its diet is diverse. It also has high obesity and diabetes rates. Italy is come under scrutiny for eating too similarly to Americans. Overall, it’s rankings have plenty of room to fall to meet American standards, five places, in fact, according to the report. 

Italians are famous for their coffee first thing in the morning. The espresso is part of the morning routine. The “doppio” or double espresso, that is two shots of espresso in one cup. If your morning needs a boost, that cup of espresso will kick you in the pants, and send you on your way, with energy to spare. Most people only have coffee for breakfast. If food is consumed, it is likely a croissant. It puts the American croissant to shame. It wasn’t the Pillsbury, pop in the oven, but the lightest, fluffy, piece of bread. The center is nearly hollow, and it almost melts in your mouth, a little like cotton candy.

Lunch is something that takes time, a lot of it. A full three-course adventure is not something to be rushed. Italians start with antipasto (appetizer), primo piatto (first plate), usually pasta, soup or rice, followed by secondo piatto, a meat or fish dish. It is also a leisurely affair, lasting more than an hour and ending with fresh fruit. Lunch is when the largest part of a person’s calories are consumed, often washed down with a glass of wine.

Dinner followed a similar three-course pattern, but with fewer calories. Cena (dinner) follows the same pattern of lunch, usually three courses beginning with antipasto — small servings of cured meat, olives, little bites to perk the palate. Next is pasta, rice or soup, followed by a meat or fish dish, accompanied by vegetables.

Italians eat locally, and seasonally. It was our chance to experience authentic pasta. We wanted to taste the spaghetti and lasagna to see how the American versions compare. Even if the ingredients weren’t quality they were fresh, and we were active enough that it really didn’t make a difference in our waistline. Everything was fresh, and it cost a little more.

France-IRL-In Real Life Findings

France, some of the healthiest eating is done here. It ranks 123 of 125 in the report. It has plenty of accessible food. Food prices are a little higher, but diets are diverse. Diabetes is not a huge problem, but obesity is high.

Breakfast in France is much the same. A cup of coffee or espresso is breakfast. If food is necessary, it is a croissant or baguette, usually plain. No additives, jelly, or honey. Just plain bread.

Lunch again is much the same. It can drag on for hours, if time allows, has many courses, and is consumed with wine. Not much pairs better with wine than cheese, and we consumed some of the best cheeses to grace our palettes. Not just the standard blue cheeses and Roquefort, you might expect, but cheese seems to be its own family of food: goat cheese, brie, camembert, chevre mousse and more. There are different kinds of cheese too: soft ripened, pressure cooked, pressed, etc. None of the ones we enjoyed were processed. They were all fresh.  

Dinner is typically small and light, perhaps yogurt and fruit are consumed.  

Snacking is frowned upon. Children eat three meals, with a light snack in the late afternoon, but adults abstain from this pleasure-it’s child’s play. In France, the culture is different. Parents aren’t guilt-ridden, like their American counterparts, which usually leads to more well-behaved children, according to Pamela Druckerman, an American Author who wrote, “Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.” Psychologists agree that the French rate of ADHD in children is .5 largely due to diet, and the ability to tell a child, “no”.

Germany-IRL-In Real Life Findings

Ranked 108, by the report, has slightly higher food prices, a diverse diet, low diabetes rate, and a low to moderate obesity rate.

Breakfast is much the same. Bread, coffee, tea, or a glass of juice. Cereal, muesli, is common. We’ll get into more detail about muesli when we get to London. For now let’s say it’s a dried oats, fruit, and sometimes yogurt.

A big difference is that snacking is encouraged. School-age children don’t often get a meal at school. They receive Pausenbrot, a recess snack, which may or may not contain bread. Fruit, yogurt, or a muesli bar are typical snacks. Adults are encouraged to snack too.

Lunch is still the main meal of the day and may be comprised of potato salad, sausage, or meatballs, potatoes, and a side of vegetables.

Dinner is light. It traditionally offers bread, deli meat, mustards, pickles, and a salad or soup.

If you are a fan of the Paleo diet you may be overjoyed by a variety of meat. Meat is consumed at many meals, nearly daily. Meat glorious meat. Sausage: bratwurst, Nurnberger rostbratwurst, blutwurst, frankfurter, knackwurst, landjager, leberwurst, leberkase, teewurst, gelbwurst, weisswurst. White sausage, yellow sausage, meatloaf, pork, congealed in blood, or in fine spices, meat is on the menu. No matter how you slice it, a frankfurter is still a hot dog.    

I had been hoping for open food markets the whole trip, and on our last morning in Germany, we found a street fair of food. We also discovered currants, red, black, and white currants are common to German desserts, and some meat dishes. Currants are a berry, sometimes called a raisin. Their formal name is “Johannisbeeren,” named after John the Baptist, whose birthday is believed to be in June, around the times the berries are ripe.  

London-IRL-In Real Life Findings

London, ranked 113 of 125 by the report, has higher food prices, a somewhat diversified diet, low obesity rate, and a moderate to high obesity rate. In fairness, we were only there a night, due to a missed flight connection.

Dinner at a London pub was delightful. Appetizers were garlic mushrooms and calamari rings. I had a traditional bowl of chicken pot pie with a side a side of steamed carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower and a side of chips. Chips are the English equivalent of french fries, but I didn’t know that at the time. The pot pie part was served in a similar bowl as one imagines the beef stew at Cracker Barrel, but the pie part wasn’t anything imaginable. Add a warm flaky, Pillsbury Dough Boy kind of fluffy croissant, made from scratch, to the top for the pie shell and you can begin to imagine the deliciousness before me.

Our time there wasn’t planned, so “traditional” is what was on the menu under that heading, or what we found at the hotel restaurant the next morning. We traveled through the buffet offerings and were introduced to muesli. Muesli, the kind we met, had oats, puffed wheat, walnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, raisins, and dates. It may be topped with yogurt. We couldn’t wait to make our own as soon as we got home. It is an authentic replication of the London breakfast experience, save the puffed wheat (see pic).

A true English muffin is nothing like one in the Thomas wrapper. It is dense. It doesn’t have pockets of air like the ones Americans have come to know. If a muffin is all you eat, an English muffin can sustain a person. Nutella, honey, jelly marmalade, blackcurrant jam, marmite, and butter were available toppings.

Even the food on the airplane was delectable. Lunch was a mushroom spinach risotto, pasta salad, roll, and chocolate orange pudding. The most surprising part of the whole meal was the clotted cream, butter of a creamy elastic consistency. It looked like it would taste like yogurt, but it tasted like cream.

English tea was served with the meal. It wasn’t starkly different from what we have in America. The main difference was the Dairystix milk. Milk in a packet. For a more authentic experience, I added it to my tea, but it was ordinary, nothing to write home about.

European vs. American Eating Habits

How do Londoners, and Europeans in general, consume pasta, food the likes I’ve described, and place significantly better than the United States? Probably because food, other than the kind on the airplane, is fresh. The main chunk of their caloric intake is at the midday meal. Many of them don’t snack, as a form of discipline, and they practically fast for breakfast. 

On our visit, we embraced local fare at every stop and lost inches from our waistlines. I’m still trying to figure out where Europeans get their calcium intake because no one drinks milk, that we saw. The milk substitute is a shelf-stable milk in a box called Parmalat. It is really only used in coffee. Children don’t even drink milk, that we noticed. Their morning coffee is infused with Parmalat in the form of a kid’s coffee. Maybe all those fresh cheeses cover the dairy requirements. 

Just 9 spots behind us, according to the report matrix, countries have limited access to clean water. Generalities are glaring, but generally speaking, Americans have plenty of food available at a fair price but are in poor health.

In America everything is bigger, our plates are bigger, our caloric intake is bigger, and our poor quality food is consumed in bigger amounts. Sweets are the first thing many consume whether it’s syrup and pancakes, sugary cereal, or dessert. Desserts aren’t a sometimes food, they are every day, all day kind of food. Processed foods are convenient and cheap, so they are used in abundance.

Other countries care about their food, where it comes from, and how fresh it is. Many Americans don’t know or don’t care to learn the truth about what they put in their bodies. Truth. What truth? When it comes to food Americans can’t handle the truth, so they make up their own, or remain unaware. They don’t know about chemicals, carcinogens, pesticides, herbicides, sugar, preservatives, dyes, flavors and processed foods. The stats are in, the report provides evidence, the real-life experience confirms what we already knew. America can’t handle the truth about food and how it impacts health.

American made muesli

London inspired muesli

High tea

London tea, on the airplane, with milk

Even airplane food is healthier then American food

Airplane food, leaving London

english muffin toppings

English muffin toppings in London

German open food markets

German open food markets

German open food markets

German open food markets

German open food markets

German open food markets

Red, white, and black currants

Red, white, and black currants